Sunday, June 19, 2011

My apologies

Hello all!!!

You may have noticed that I haven't been posting in a bit.  If you wanted to know why, well, I got married yesterday on Ward's Island!  And as many of you know, the few weeks before your wedding gets very very busy.  We are leaving on our honeymoon tomorrow and will be back at the end of the month.  So expect a tonne of postings throughout July (hopefully!).  Also, if anyone needs a delicious event caterer, we can't say enough good things about Audrey Demers.  Definitely the choice of the selective foodie!

In the meantime, let me leave you with a picture of my new wife Jessica and I as we were stroling along the beach this morning for the first time as husband and wife.  See you all in a couple of weeks!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

CHICKEN PLUS CURRY ROTI: 216 Close Avenue - (416) 516-0747

Kevin outside Chicken Plus Curry Roti
“I often cry during episodes of Glee” Kevin said while recalling a recent and saddening episode of the hit TV show.  There is a small chance I might have provoked such a statement by talking about the last episode where Sue Sylvester's sister died and the Glee club sang a Willy Wonka song at her funeral.  There is even a smaller chance that I might have mentioned how I choked up and got misty during the funeral scene.  But really, it most likely didn’t happen.  Really unlikely.  Like 97.8% unlikely.  The lesson here is:  anything you say or do during a Parkdale dinner with me can and will be used against you on the blog.  Lesson learned, eh Kevin?

Dinner guest Kevin Barry
Oh right, everyone meet Kevin Barry.  Kevin is the little brother of our previous dinner guest Chris Barry and he works at the best print shop in Ontario – C.J.Graphics.  I had just finished printing a small job with Kevin for my most recent targeted mailer campaign (rather than the usual promotional ejaculation widely sprayed over every Canadian art/creative directors desk) showing off the ridiculously good job I did photographing a difficult campaign for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Sick Kids Hospital when I suggested we grab some Parkdale grub.  Kevin, being a very tall man, accepted (and sorry ladies, he’s married.  And yes his wife is awesome and hot!).

The atmosphere at Chicken Plus Curry Roti
So we decided on a little place just off Queen Street called Chicken Plus Curry Roti.  We arrived and I immediately I liked it.  It's one of those little corner joints that I’ve been dying to try.  Located just up the street from the back of Parkdale Collegiate, you got the impression that the high school kids are their most frequent patrons.  The woman behind the counter also seemed to have a no-bullshit air about her personality.  The kind of person who’s either been through a war or has been serving Parkdale kids lunch and snacks for many years.  I’m not sure which is worse.

Speaking of war, this is now the third candidate in the great Parkdale Roti war.  So far Mother India is winning having beaten Bacchus Roti Shop.  The question now is...will Curry Plus Chicken Roti beat Mother Indias amazingly tasty roti???  Kevin and I were excited to know (well mostly me, Kevin was just hungry, still weepy, and doing a shaky impersonation of Rachel singing Papa Can You Hear Me?…..yeeeeesh!).

Kevin's goat roti
I ordered what I assumed would be the house specialty – a chicken roti with a side of creamy cole slaw.  Kevin got the goat roti.  No sides.  He’s like that.  The woman behind the counter said that it might be a few minutes since they make all their rotis fresh to order.  Score!!!

The atmosphere was just perfect.  Well not perfect, per se, but its imperfections make it perfect!  Its at this kind of restaurant that I love to eat.  Small, cozy, clean, homemade signs, old pictures, and for some reason I LOVE the tiles on the walls.  Can someone please explain that to me?

On side note, can someone please explain something else to me?  Baby-boomers and restaurants.  Why are they the worst combination ever?!  Has anyone else ever noticed that going out to dinner with a baby-boomer is like driving with someone prone to road rage?  The littlest thing will set them off and, instead of ignoring it or not considering it a particularly big deal, they will sacrifice the enjoyment of the entire evening by sulking, yelling, and being generally pissed off.  It's like...suppose a waiter happens to walk past your table at a moment when you want their attention and the waiter, god forbid, doesn't see you.  To a baby boomer that's the equivalent of the waiter having walked over to the table, thrown a cup of ice water in your face, and then moved on.  And the principles!!!  Oh god, don't get me started about baby-boomers who scream about the "principles".  A word of advice.  If you are out to dinner with a baby-boomer and they angrily demand to speak to the waiter/manager/owner and say something to the equivalent of "It's not the money, it's the principle!" just leave the table, wait outside 'til they're finished their chest thumping, and then sneak back inside and leave the server an extra tip.  Lord knows they deserve it!  Maybe I've just had some bad experiences but it seems like everyone I mention this to has very similar horror stories.  Has anyone else had any similar experiences with this generation?

Best to skip the cole slaw
Ok, thanks for that.  I needed to vent.  Now back to C.P.C.R.!!!  Our rotis arrived in less time than we thought (like 5 minutes) and they smelled great.  Wrapped in a paper foil and served on a foam plate, we opened them up to the warm steam that is the Parkdale roti.  Mmmmm…..  And they tasted pretty good too.  They were piping hot and full of flavor, the roti wrap was a little chewy but not too bad, and we gobbled it up real quick. Mine was a bit on the sweeter side than Kevin’s goat roti but both tasted pretty fine.  Perhaps there was not as much meat, sauce, and vegetables inside the roti as we might have liked but for $5.75/roti, it’s a pretty darn good value.  However it felt like more of a lunch than a dinner.  Well, that depends on your eating habits I guess.  I’m not sure if the coleslaw was homemade or not but I’m guessing not because it was not really up to snuff.  It was basically the same as KFC coleslaw.  So let’s just forget about that, k?

The dinner ended and Kevin and I parted ways.  I went home to my beautiful fiancĂ© (soon to be wife in like 4 weeks) and Kevin went home to cry over his Chris Colfer poster pasted above his hope chest in his bedroom.  All in all, we both liked Chicken Plus Curry Roti and I’d go back.  However, I’m sorry to say that Mother India is still in the lead!  I actually went back to Mother India a while ago for lunch and updated its score to a 4.  Its a really fucking good roti!  Chicken Plus Curry Roti did make a very nice roti and I would recommend it but I wish it had been bigger and filled with more flavor and roti goodness!  But a respectable roti it was indeed!

Rating:  3.25

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

BARQUE SMOKEHOUSE: 299 Roncesvalles Avenue - (416) 532-7700

Chris and Rob outside Barque Smokehouse
Anyone who knows me knows of my intense love for eating good meat.  In my world, the word “meat” is spelled “mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmeat”.  It’s like a type of communion for me.  I don’t like getting drunk off booze anymore however getting meat-drunk off a good steak is like an evening at an opium brothel.  For me, hearing the word “braised” is like getting a full body massage by 12 sirens while singing the most sonorous songs imaginable and smoking all the pot in the world.  Yes you heard me right, ALL the pot in the world.  That’s a lot.  Much to many friends chagrin, I am a carnivore through and through.  Proud one at that as well!

So you can imagine my giddiness when Barque Smokehouse (pronounced Bar-Cue, I think) opened up on Roncesvalles - a new local smokehouse that seems to be riding the wave of “real bbq” restaurants throughout Toronto.  Ever since I purchased my Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker, which I mark as the beginning of my love-affair with meat, smoked meat has become a sublime indulgence for me. I love sitting around the smoker smelling the sweet wafts of hickory, mesquite, alder, cherry, pecan, maple, cedar, or whatever is the smoke-de-jour.  There’s a certain kind of basic and natural quality about cooking with smoke.  It hits something deep within me.  

Our dinner guest Chris Barry and Rob Norton
So a week or so ago, I invited my good friends Rob Norton and Chris Barry off to Barque for a bite.  Rob and I were in the same class at Ryerson studying photography however Rob has moved on to focus more on graphic design.  He has also become one of the premier Ambrotype makers in Canada, possibly the world.  Chris Barry and I also went to school but he was a year under me.  He’s basically my hero.  Media artist, writer, radio + TV producer, editor, curator, DJ, the boy does it all…and does it all very very well!  He’s currently working as a producer on an upcoming History Television program about rogue collector Bill Jameson.  Seriously can’t wait for that!

Popcorn and dipping sauces for munching
A little apology in advance.  I accidentally deleted my notes from this restaurant off my Iphone so I’m writing entirely by memory.  I know its amazingly unprofessional of me to even write a review without my notes but hey, this is where the “unqualified” in the phrase “completely unqualified restaurant reviews” really shines bright.  

So we arrived and were seated with a bucket of plain popcorn and a couple of dipping sauces!  Excellent!!!  This was a really ingenious way for customers to snack without filling up.  For starters, I ordered a coconut corn soup and Rob ordered some smoked bbq wings.  And for our mains we each got a taster plate.  Basically you can order a plate and pick 3 meats and a couple of sides.  I ordered the brisket, the smoked chicken, and the ribs.  The fourth meat option was a beef rib so Chris ordered that and promised me a bite.  For my sides I ordered Cuban corn and some steamed vegetables.  Chris and Rob ordered some fries and smoked asparagus if I remember correctly.

Coconut Corn Soup
Ok.  So the soup arrives and it’s fucking devine!!!  Like amazingly tasty.  Creamy, a touch of sweetness from the coconut and there were little hunks of bacon hidden within which is always a plus.  It was a good size too.  Almost lunch portion!  Rob let me try a smoked wing and it was pretty good too but I must say I was really focused in on the corn soup so I didn’t really think too much about it.  However Rob and Chris seemed to really like the wings and cleaned off their plate like vultures.

The meat arrived and the anticipation grew.  My first bite was the ribs.  It has a bit of a sweet rub and sauce to it which wasn’t tooooo sweet so you could still taste the smokey goodness of the ribs.  The brisket however was the best part.  Smokey and moist, I think everyone tried a bite and we all agreed it was the best meat of the bunch.  The chicken had a nice flavour but it turned out a bit dry.  For some reason I expected this.  Chicken is already a hard meat to keep moist and its especially hard when slow cooking it over smoke.  I’ve been to many smokehouses in the past and it seems like an ongoing battle to get the chicken right.  Or perhaps I’m just being too demanding of my chicken.  Regardless, I finished everything on my plate except the chicken.  Next time I would order the beef rib as my third.  I had a bite of Chris’ and it was just wonderful.

Mmmmmeat!  And sides!
So the meat tasted great, the apps were wonderful, however there was something missing from the meal.  Normally smoked food has a bit of a bite in its flavor and for some reason that bite seemed to be lacking.  Maybe they’re still finding their feet (I think they had only been open for a week) or perhaps they’re just not smoking the food long enough but in comparison to a place like the Stockyards, Barque Smokehouse falls a little short.  Regardless, it was still pretty fucking delicious and I would definitely go back for another meat night!

A great addition to Roncy!
The sides were great too.  The highlight was the Cuban corn which was bbq’d corn with some goat cheese (I think) smeared across the kernels.  The smoked asparagus were brilliant and the fries were pretty darn tasty too.  They are probably some of the best fries in Parkdale.  The steamed vegetables were great as a palate cleanser and reprieve from the smokey flavours during the meal but were pretty bland on their own.

It’s really wonderful to see Barque as busy as it was.  We were lucky to have gotten the table we did and we spent our whole meal watching the lineup at the door get longer and longer.  Many times I walked past the restaurant that had previously occupied the space and had rarely ever seen any customers, let alone a line up.  And with the businesses on Roncesvalles having to suffer through yet another summer of hardcore construction, it’s nice to see a place that attracts a large crowd to a street that certainly needs the business.  

Rating:  4

Monday, May 9, 2011

HAPPY TIME RESTAURANT: 1384 Queen Street West - (416) 532-9565

Tristen outside the Happy Time Restaurant
When I was around 14 years old, a friend of mine and I went to our local video shop and we decided to rent the movie Ishtar.  We knew of its reputation of being one of the worst movies ever made and we thought it would be hilarious to watch it that afternoon.  So we brought it home, popped it into the VCR and sat back.  We very quickly realized why this movie had the reputation it did.  It wasn't bad in the same way that say Plan 9 From Outer Space or Troll 2 or the Star Wars Christmas Special was bad.  Those movies are simultaneously bad and hilarious (just like a good pun!).  Ishtar, on the other hand, well, it was just bad.  Like really boring.  And long.  And the more you watched it the more you wanted to turn it off and do anything else!

There occurred a decisive moment around 15 minutes into the movie, right around the point where the novelty of the joke wore off and I realized that I had to sit through another hour and a half of this garbage.  I didn't think it was funny anymore.  I wanted to turn it off.  So we did

Inside the Happy Time Restaurant
We learned an important lesson that day.  Ideas are easier than actions.  Saying that you're going to watch one of the worst movies ever made is much easier than actually sitting through one of the worst movies ever made.

The same feeling hit me as I began my stroll over to the Happy Time Restaurant for what was sure to be a memorable dinner with my best pal Tristen Brown.  I had walked past it many time and that only thing I knew about Happy Time  was that it seemed to be a place for people to get hammered, stand outside, smoke, and yell at each other.  I suddenly thought back to the lesson I learned from Ishtar and realized that there is a very big difference between saying you're going to eat at this restaurant and actually putting the food into your mouth. The only difference was that I couldn't turn off my decision to eat there.  Sure I could postpone it, but I had a responsibility to my readers to eat at EVERY restaurant in Parkdale, not just the reasonable ones.

The sweetest boy you ever did knew!
But first, a word about our guest.  Tristen and I have known each other since we met in the ice room at the old Helium nightclub where we both worked as bussers during our university years  He then became my roommate for 4 years.  A brilliant jazz trumpet player and illustrator, Tristen has since taken to the interwebby-thingy-madoodle and was recently hired by one of the premier international web development companies Development Seed in Washington D.C.!  On a side not, may I offer a quick word of advice to aspiring photographers?  Want to know whats more valuable in the early days of your career than having a big studio, all the equipment in the world, and a really really really nice car?  The answer is....a roomate who will basically do anything you ask for a photograph.  They are worth their weight in gold!

On to our Happy Time experience.  It didn't start well.  On the way there I received a phone call from Tristen asking where I was and how much longer I'd be?  He seemed nervous.  When I arrived he had already started drinking and had a story to tell.  Apparently one of the owners of the place came by his table to take his order.  Normally this wouldn't be out of the ordinary except for the owner was pushing her daughter in a stroller along with her.  Tristen had been momentarily confused since this was the first time someone ever took his order in a restaurant while pushing a stroller.  I thought it was hilarious.

The menu
So I turned around to look at the menu however Tristen quickly told me that there were only two options available to eat that day.  Chicken wings and fish and chips.  Perrrrrfect!  Tristen ordered the wings and I got the fish and chips.  We also got ourselves some mugs of draft beer.  We never asked what kind.

The atmosphere of Happy Time is about what you would expect.  A bar at the far end of the restaurant with bar stools in front, a pool table and a connected line of tables in the center of the room, and scattered seating around the perimeter.  The patrons were also what you might expect.  Loud, uninhibited, and wonderfully friendly!

The beer arrived and it tasted cold, clean, and great.  So far so good.  Right around that time two police officers came strolling in and went to talk with the bartender.  I tried to eavesdrop on their conversation but all I heard was the bartender saying repeatedly "No I haven't seen him around here in a while."  Cops left shortly after that.

Tristen's sauceless chicken wings
Food arrives!  My fish and Tristens chicken wings are both served on top of a bed of fries.  I get a little Dixie cup of tartar sauce and Tristen, well, he gets nothing.  The wings were sauce-less.  Should be interesting.

Ok here's where I think we should recall a little conversation we had in the last post about expectations.  For those of you who might not have read it, in the last post I spoke about how its impossible to separate your expectations and pretensions from your food experience.  One day if we did nothing but blind tastings it might be possible, but in the meantime I think its best to not even try.  We obviously had very very low expectations for the Happy Time Restaurant.  To be honest I was expecting to be eating 2 week old roadkill fish with McCain frozen fries, regurgitated bile-scented ketchup, and tartar sauce that...well, you get the idea.  I should also mention that right before our food arrived a couple of patrons were refused service at the bar and then started yelling at the top of his lungs at the whole restaurant.  Then they threatened to come back and beat the shit out of the bartender.  Like I said, expectations weren't too high but man were we having fun!

Daniel's fish and chips
We each ate our whole meal and enjoyed it!  My fish was moist and actually had a nice tooth to it, the tartar sauce seemed to be store-bought but still tasted pretty good, and the ketchup had no trace scents of bile anywhere.  Score!  Tristen said the same.  Even though his chicken wings were sauce-less, they still had a wholesome salty flavour and were nicely moist.  I tried a bite and he was right.  The fries were standard bar/pub fries but were pipping hot and tasted fine. 

We walked away surprised.  The beer was cold and clean, the food was tasty, owners were really sweet, and we had a really fun time chatting with some of the patrons.  And best of all, my meal (2 beers + fish and chips) came to 11 bucks!  Tristen's meal priced around the same!  We walked away from the place and feeling great and really happy, just like the name of the place promised we would.

The true test of the Happy Time Restaurant came later on when I was waiting for the food poisoning to set in.  So I went to finish up my night.  Went to a gallery show, came home, watched some TV, threw some old batteries at the passing neighbourhood kids, huffed some permanent markers, took a Benadryl, went to sleep, woke up the next morning....


Tristen and I agreed that even though we would not bring our family to the Happy Time Restaurant, we would happily go there with good friends for some late night beers and some tasty deep fried snacks.  We also both agreed it scored a solid 3.

Rating: 3

Friday, April 29, 2011

INTERSTEER RESTAURANT: 361 Roncesvalles Avenue - (416) 588-8054

The menu at the Intersteer
When I first moved to the Roncesvalles area years ago, the Intersteer was this notorious bar/restaurant that was filled with smoke & booze stained tables and patrons.  It was loud, raucous, and always fun.  A few years ago the Intersteer decided to move a couple of shops south of its original location and basically recreated the exact same bar, minus the stains.  It reintroduced itself to the neighbourhood with new and glorious shinny wood, clean brass, but kept the same old patrons and jukebox.

The chef at the Intersteer was Bart Murawieki, a Susur Lee trained chef.  He has apparently moved on and been replaced by Mike Cross, an old sous chef from Rain.  To me this was the most intriguing part of the Intersteer.  It appeared to be a kind of seedy old Polish bar but, if you braved its harsh veneer, it would reward you with some truly amazing food.

So with this in mind I invited a couple of friends out for a bite at the Intersteer.  Everyone, meet Daniel Neuhaus and Vanessa Heins.  You'll really like em both!

Daniel Neuhaus and Vanessa Heins
Daniel Neuhaus is a wonderful photographer and the photo editor at Toronto Life Magazine.  We have been working together since pretty much his first day on the job.  Much like the Intersteer, Daniel is a man on contradictions.  You meet him and notice his very boyish face, his sweet calm demeanor, and his almost childlike exuberance for just about any subject that comes up in conversation.  Basically he reminds you of that nerdy kid from the band room in high school. However, if you get a chance to listen to some of his stories, you find out that, for fun, he sometimes drops himself in the middle of the Australian outback with nothing but some bananas and cashews just to see, you know, how it'll all turn out!  The guy blows my mind!

Photographer Vanessa Heins is a Ryerson alumni who's name seems to appear all over the place.  A favourite photographer amongst musicians and photo editors alike, she is an incredible talent who also seems to be completely devoid of any ego whatsoever.  She makes the most wonderful and subtle photographs that have an airy and effortless quality to them.  She's a doll!

Nacho pierogi
Ok on to the food.  We arrived!  The cute waitress told me repeatedly how good I smelled.  It got to the point where she almost hugged me.  So far soooooo good!

We started off with the most intriguing sounding dish on the menu, the "nacho pierogi" which are pierogi with "the works".  Both Daniel and Vanessa ordered the crispy chicken sandwich with avocado and Thai bail, Daniel got his with fries and Vanessa got hers with salad, and I ordered the pan-fried fish and chips.  The pierogi arrived first and they were great.  They were topped with cheddar cheese, jalapenos, tomatoes, peppers, sour cream, and guacamole.  Never did I ever think you could properly fuse together Polish and Mexican foods but the Intersteer has found a way.  They tasted pretty good.  I mean its the kind of a novelty dish that I enjoyed but probably wouldn't order again.  Kind of like every single dish at a "Poutinery".  Nevertheless we gobbled them up real quick.  Even Vanessa had a bite and she's lactose intolerant!  So speaks the power of the pierogi nachos.

Vanessa looking cute
with her chicken sandwich
Our meals arrived looking, well, Polish.  Which usually means unpretentious.  I appreciate that!  It speaks to my eastern European Jewish heritage.  Vanessa and Daniel chomped down on their sandwiches and were pretty unimpressed.  According to them there was nothing wrong with em.  They were perhaps little dry but really they were fine.  Flavours were ok but nothing particularly special.  Fries were kind standard.  So was the salad.  Not really something you would expect from a supposedly high-end pub kitchen.

My fish tasted good but I could see what Dan and Vanessa were saying.  The accompanying homemade tartar sauce was great but the fish itself wasn't particularly special.  Perhaps I was being unfairly influenced by Intersteer's reputation, or perhaps I was expecting too much, but really the fish was entirely average pub fare. 

My pan-fried fish and chips
As I continue into this blog I'm starting to realize that reputations and expectations are an inextricable power in the world of restaurant reviews.  Thinking about a restaurant as a completely blank slate without any pretensions is pretty much impossible.  And to be honest, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.  There's something to be said about singing the praises of a five dollar dinner served from the back of a truck and tearing to shreds a five hundred dollar dinner served in a chic Mark McEwan-esque boutique restaurant.  I'm sure the whole process would work out entirely different if every review I wrote was from a blind taste test.  But that's for another blog.

In the meantime, Intersteer you disappointed us.  I think I would go back but only for the drinks, the patrons, the jukebox, and the waitresses who say I smell really good, not for the food.

Rating:  2.5

Friday, April 22, 2011

STAMPEDE BISON GRILL: 5 Brock Avenue - (416) 534-4999

Aristea and Reena outside
Stampede Bison Grill
Anyone who knows me, or who regularly reads this blog, knows very well that I have a kryptonite-esque weakness for hamburgers.  When I was a kid, burgers took on almost mythic significance as the highest form of food.  Of course, as a kid, all I really wanted on my hamburger was ketchup so it may have been less about the burger itself and more of a condiment delivery system.

I still to this day remember the moment when I was at the hooker Harveys by Ryerson University and, responding to the woman behind the sneeze glass, saying a phrase that, to me, always represented the ultimate form of adulthood. 

"I'll have everything on it.  Well except hot peppers.  Oh fuck it, just a few hot peppers."

My bar mitzvah did nothing for me.  Losing my virginity was just downright awkward.  Earning my first pay cheque from Loeb grocery stores when I was fourteen was entirely anticlimactic.  That moment in the hooker Harvey's was the day I became a man.  Lucky for me it didn't also involve a hooker.

Fast forward many years and I find myself approaching Stampede Bison Grill with my good friends Aristea Rizakos and Reena Newman with the giddy exuberance of twelve year old girl at a shopping mall autograph signing.  I had heard mixed reviews about Stampede from various sources.  Elizabeth Brandt from Underline Studio once told me it was her neighbourhood weakness.  Like after a shitty day, Stampede Bison Grill makes it all better.  However my local hamburger expert Justin Broadbent, also one of the best designers in Canada, told me that it was very overrated and he wouldn't go back.  Finally I would know the truth for myself.  Hallelujah!

Our dinner guests Reena Newman and Aristea Rizakos
But first a word or two about our guests for the evening.  Aristea Rizakos is a brilliant interiors photographers, producer, incredibly gorgeous, and the reason I didn't starve when I was first out of school.  We met when she hired me to assist on photo shoots, even though I was a pretty terrible assistant, and kept me employed semi-regularly for a year.  She is also a big reason why I became a relatively successful photographer.  My very first advertising photo shoot was for Applied Arts Magazine with the ad agency Bos.  The shoot involved 3 executions, 3 locations, 40 extras, lots of permits, and 1 day.  She worked as my producer on that shoot and made it happen flawlessly.  If it wasn't for that shoot, I doubt I would be where I am today.

Food photographer Reena Newman and I also met on that shoot.  Aristea hired her as an assistant that day and we've been friends and colleagues ever since.  She has just finished putting together a ridiculously nice portfolio of food photography which is already attracting much attention.  She also might not notice but boys fall in love with her constantly.  She is addictively cute!  (Fyi, she is also married)

This is what we ordered...
and what we could have ordered.
So, along with these two sirens of the photo world, I enter the Stampede Bison Grill.  The atmosphere is fairly light and relaxed.  There is single seating along the perimeter of the joint with three or four 4-person tables in the middle.  It's pretty full when we arrive but we score a table in the middle of the room.  I order a bison burger with a side of sweet potato fries.  Reena orders a beef burger with a side of poutine.  We also decide to split the dark-rum chocolate milkshake which catches our interest.  Aristea orders the veggie burger and a side of onion rings. 

The food arrives promptly and its already looking promising.  The burgers are a good size and smothered nicely with fresh-looking toppings and condiments.  The poutine is topped with cheese curds the size of eyeballs and the onion rings and sweet potato fries look damn yummy too.  We each take a bite of our burgers at around the same time.  A hush comes over the room.  It takes a few seconds for our palates to negotiate the flavours and come to any decisions.  But when they do, its unanimous.

The Veggie Burger
MMMMMMMMMM!!!!!!!!  OH FUCK YEAH!!!!  That's awesome!!!!!!

These were very very very yummy burgers.  Lets start with mine.  Often bison burgers can come out dry because they aren't nearly as fatty as beef but this burger was moist and plump, it held together nicely, and was chock full of delicious gamy flavour.  Sure the condiments were dominating my palate, as is the case with any burger, but you could still taste a gaminess to the bison that just made me weak at the knees!

Reenas burger was just as delicious but she did say it was a little overcooked.  However she also said that she likes her beef as rare as possible and, since they probably aren't grinding up the beef right before it hits the grill, a rare burger might be ill-advised.  She later admitted that she likes eating things that are as close to being "still alive" as possible.  God love her!

Poutine, onion rings, and sweet potato fries
Aristeas order was the wildcard.  Often burger places will treat their veggie options as an annoying afterthought.  They will throw together a haphazard veggie burger recipe because they know its not their principal clientele.  It's basically on the menu to appease that one vegetarian who chagriningly goes along with the rest of the family to the burger joint.  But, according to Aristea it was freakin delicious!  It was moist, held together well, had a bit of a nutty flavour and a very hearty texture.  She said it was one of the best veggie burgers she had eaten in a very long while.

And now, to the sides.  The onion rings were perfect!  Seriously.  These were exactly as onion rings should be.  Anyone who regularly eats onion rings knows that a low-quality onion ring will crawl out of its deep-fried bready shell like a scalding hot earthworm if it isn't bitten down upon with the force of a guillotine.  These ones seemed to have partially melted into the breading and separated without any real force or conviction.  And they tasted delicious to boot.

Our dark-rum chocolate milkshake
(and proof to our spouses that
we used two straws)
The sweet potato fries were great however I thought they were a bit over-salted.  The girls disagreed.  Aristea and Reena described them as "highly addictive".

However the two big highlights of the night were the poutine and the dark-rum chocolate milkshake.  Sorry to dwell but the cheese curds in the poutine were just fucking huge.  And yes a lot of factors go into making a good poutine (the flavour of the gravy, the quality of the french fry, etc.),  but if you start out with huge cheese curds, you're already like 60% there!  Lucky for us the fries were great and the gravy was pretty good.  It wasn't the most flavourful gravy but still pretty good.  Perhaps we were just so focused on those cheese curds that it overshadowed the gravy.  Regardless, the poutine was fantastic.

The bison burger with cheese!
And the dark-rum chocolate milkshake was a revelation!  Sure it was expensive (like almost 8 bucks) but man was it tasty.  Reena and I were a bit nervous about this one but we were very happy to have followed our curiosities.  We were also glad that we split it because, had we not, we would have probably arrived home in a wheelbarrow. 

Ok, at this point I feel like I'm gushing!  Needless to say we were all relatively smitten with Stampede Bison Grill.  Go check it out friends!  And be sure to order the dark-rum milkshake.  Sure its an indulgence but c'mon, we only live once, right?

Rating:  4.25

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

PHOENIX RESTAURANT: 1345 Queen St West - (416) 532-2971

Outside the Phoenix Restaurant
Looking back now, I think it was the Phoenix Restaurant that inspired me to start this blog.  The exterior looked like a lot of other Parkdale restaurants, the sign read Chinese and Canadian Food (a piece of advice here:  any restaurant that advertises itself as "anything + Canadian food" is never a good sign, kinda like a video monitor menu at the door ..beware!) but it also had these charming cartoon drawings of whole fish and whole chicken.  To me this was the kind of restaurant that might be a hidden gem.  Something that looks like shit but tastes like heaven.  So I saved this place for some very special dinner guests.

The dinner guest theme of the evening is "the best people I met in 2010!"  Everyone!  Please meet Shelbie Vermette, Matthew Tammaro, and Andrew B. Myers.  A word about all three in a moment, but first if you've ever wondered what goes on during our Parkdale dinners, here's a bit of a taste...

I actually met Shelbie Vermette in 2009 when she was working as an interim photo editor at Report on Business Magazine and she assigned me the harrowing task of photographing Ron Joyce, the co-founder of Tim Hortons.  However then we only knew each others voice.  We finally met in person at an event I held at my studio in 2010 (I won't mention the event, I'd rather forget about it entirely).  She then did a brief stint as a photographers rep at Westside Studio and is now the photo editor at Eye Magazine.  She is the walking definition of wonderful.

Shelbie, Andrew, and Matt
Speaking of wonderful, our next guest is Matthew Tammaro.  Matt and I met last year when has asked about doing an internship with me during his final year as a photography student at Ryerson University.  At first I was a bit reluctant about taking on another intern but when I saw his work I immediately said yes.  It is, simply put, some of the best work I've seen in years.  Intelligent and beautifully crafted without being hokey, his work really grabs you by the face in the most gentle way possible, but still grabs you.  He also turned out to be the one of the sweetest guy I've ever met.  So that worked out well.

Speaking of some of the best work I've seen in years, meet Andrew B. Myers.  I was first introduced to his work through Heather Morton's much missed blog about a year ago.   His work made me want to kill myself.  Or at least abandon photography altogether and become a farmer.  It was unlike any work I had ever seen.  His work is amazingly mature, hilarious, and features the most beautiful colour palate of any Canadian photographer I've seen in a long time.  Before I met him I was convinced he was some kind of wizard or some horrible turtle-neck and blazer wearing asshole who used to be into The Tallest Man on Earth but now they're just too commercial.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Much like Matt and Shelbie he's an uber-talented humble sweetheart!  The best qualities to have in a friends and colleagues.

Our Won-Ton Soup
So enough about the guests, on to the dinner!  Like I said, The Phoenix Restaurant was actually the place that made me start this blog.  For some reason I found those drawings of whole fish and chickens in the window incredibly compelling.  I thought if any restaurant in Parkdale would be a hidden gem, this would be it.  Much like its name, the Phoenix Restaurant would rise from the ashes of crappy Parkdale food.

Yeah, not so much.

We arrived to a restaurant that was filled with what looked like reject tables from Spadina Avenue restaurants, a loud TV, and buzzing fluorescent light.  Matt arrived first and Shelbie and Andrew shortly after.  The menu was a bit confusing as it featured Chinese, South American, and Canadian food.  So we asked our waiter to recommend a few things.  By the way, our waiter was a 15 year old kid who turned out to be awesome but not particularly helpful.  He said that everything on the menu was good and if we came back on Monday we should try out their famous Oxtail Soup.  Apparently it takes 3 days to make and is only available on Monday and sometimes on Tuesdays.  I plan to return for a follow up lunch review.

Matt trying to eat his soup
in the sexiest way possible.

So in the end we decided to try a mix of foods.  Matt started out with a hot and sour soup.  Shelbie and I each ordered a won ton soup because we're awesome.  Andrew mooched off us all!

For our mains we ordered a plate of sweet and sour chicken balls, some pork spareribs in a garlic sauce, an arroz co pollo which is a chicken fried rice latin style, and a chalet de cerdo which is a breaded beef steak.  

The soups were great!  Hands down the best part of our meal.  Shelbie and I both appreciate a good won-ton soup and its exactly what we got.  Pipping hot and not too salty.  Matt also seemed to really enjoy his hot and sour soup.  So far so good.

sweet and sour chicken balls
The sweet and sour chicken balls were somewhat misleading.  It really should have been called deep fried sweet and sour breading with a pea sized piece of chicken buried somewhere deep within.  They were pretty horrible.  Even the sweet and sour sauce was kinda gross.  Too much sour and not enough sweet.  Normally when I go out for Chinese food, the sweet and sour stuff is always the first to go.  I believe this is the first time we had some sweet and sour leftovers.

I thought the pork spareribs in a garlic sauce was the worst dish of the meal although Andrew seemed to like it.  Maybe he was just hungry or we were tasting different things.  There was barely any meat on the ribs and the sauce just tasted like brown flavoured water, and the flavouring wasn't particularly good.

Chalet de cerdo (breaded steak)
We can skip arroz co pollo (latin style chicken friend rice) since it was basically no different than any other fried rice dish you've ever had at the Eaton Centre food court.  It was kinda dry, without much flavour, and we barely ate any of it.

The surprise of the night was the chalet de cerdo (the breaded steak dish).  When it arrived it looked kinda like a baseball glove sitting on bed of rice and not particularly appetizing.  Matt sprinkled some lemon juice on it and, surprisingly, it wasn't that bad.  Not great, but not bad at all.  It tasted a little bit like schnitzel and the lemon flavour really went well with the, well, meat and breading.  Don't get me wrong, I don't think I would order this again.  In fact I don't think I would go back to the Phoenix altogether (except to try the Oxtail Soup).  But this dish was probably the winner of the night.  However that's not saying much.

Andrew trying to eat
a chicken ball in the sexiest
possible way.

The night ended with some fortune cookies, a reasonable bill, and some drinks over at Mezrows down the street (The Phoenix doesn't have a liquor license...if you go bring a flask).  At the end of the night I asked our guests to rate their meal.  Matt gave it a 2.5, Shelbie the same, Andrew gave it a 3.  I thought they were all being a bit generous.  Perhaps they didn't want to give the impression that they had a bad time, which I know they didn't.  While the company was amazing, the 15 year old waiter was incredibly charming, and we had a great time, the food was very sub par.  It's  a shame too since I had such high hopes for this place.

Rating: 2